JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – On September 15, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe signed a power-sharing deal with Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The much-vaunted agreement, brokered after the mediation of former South African President Thabo Mbeki, was supposed to end the humanitarian crisis that has gripped Zimbabwe since 2000 and left the country on the verge of a civil war. Instead, the deal has pulled the warring parties further apart, with each accusing the other of making unworkable demands, while conditions in Zimbabwe continue to deteriorate.
The most recent crisis is a serious cholera outbreak, which erupted last month in the capital of Harare. The epidemic has already killed more than 300 people in Zimbabwe, affected more than 1.4 million, and is fast threatening neighboring countries. As Zimbabwe’s under-staffed hospitals have struggled to contain the outbreak, cholera has spread to the country’s second capital, Bulawayo, the Midlands capital, Gweru, and the Zimbabwe-South Africa border town of Beitbridge. Hundreds of the sick have died in the bush; still others have been killed while scaling electric security fences in a desperate bid to cross illegally to South Africa to get medical attention. South Africa has also treated more than 105 Zimbabwean cholera sufferers, and at least four have died on its shores in recent weeks.
A driving cause of the cholera epidemic’s deadly spread is the woeful state of Zimbabwean medical facilities. Indeed, the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has described the country’s health delivery system as a violation of the health rights of Zimbabweans. “The country’s public health system is in a state of collapse and in need of urgent action to rescue it. It has been paralyzed by drug shortages, insufficient medical supplies, dilapidated infrastructure, equipment breakdowns and a brain-drain,” read a statement released by the group last week.
Worsening the dire conditions in the country is an economic meltdown. Marked by record inflation, which official figures put at above 230 million percent (independent economists say it could be 10 times as much), the economic collapse has affected every public service and created yet another crisis in the landlocked former British colony.
Zimbabwe’s economic woes are of course far from new. Economic instability has plagued the country since President Robert Mugabe took over the government in 1980. Agriculture, previously the backbone of the economy, has totally collapsed due to the government's "Agrarian revolution" of 2000, when Mugabe deployed former freedom fighters to seize white-owned farms by force. More than 4,000 white farmers were robbed of their productive properties, while at least five were killed in cold blood by Mugabe’s thugs. The farms were later parceled out to government officials. What land remained was distributed to the top members of the country's security forces.
The results of this “revolution” have been singularly devastating. As the former "bread basket" of Southern Africa, Zimbabwe once exported tons of its staple maize grain. Today Zimbabwe can no longer feed its 11 million people, half of whom survive on international food assistance. Basic commodities like maize meal, cooking oil, washing soap, and sugar are now unavailable on store shelves. Most Zimbabweans rely on food imports from neighboring South Africa and Botswana for their daily survival.
Work may be even scarcer than food. More than 90 percent of the country’s working class is unemployed. The job shortage has also caused a “brain drain,” as disgruntled professionals like teachers, doctors and nurses continue quit their jobs in protest over low salaries and poor working conditions. Professor John Makumbe, a political science lecturer at the state-owned University of Zimbabwe, says that as one of the highest paid employees, he earns a basic monthly salary of less than $4 U.S. – this in a country where the cost of living is above $30. “Professionals are leaving because they are fed up with the government’s false promises. Teachers are the least paid and that is why they are always on strike,” says Raymond Majongwe, secretary general of the Progressive Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe, which has organized most of the strikes.
Political feuds have put paid to any immediate hopes of improving Zimbabwe's ailing economy and reviving the former "Jewel of Africa." While this September’s agreement was supposed to create a national unity government, both Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai have yet to approve the constitutional amendment that would make it a reality. Instead, Mugabe and Tsvangirai’s MDC continue to haggle over the allocation of cabinet posts. The MDC charges that Mugabe has tried to retain control of the ministries of Defense, Home Affairs, Justice, Information, Finance and Agriculture – in effect the backbone of the Zimbabwean government. “This man wants to relegate us into being just by-standers in the day-to-day running of government and we cannot take that,” says MDC spokesman Nelson Chamisa. “He does not know what sharing means and as the party that won the elections, we are saying no to that.”
The MDC agrees that Mugabe should keep three of the four security ministries. However, it argues that it should also get one, in order to remain relevant in the government, and as a check on Mugabe’s authoritarian rule. “We have agreed that he should retain control of the army, while he gives us the police because we know that the country’s security is very important, but we do not want to be utterly useless either,” says Chamisa.
Mugabe has rejected this compromise. He has declared that as president he alone should allocate cabinet posts, and insists that the MDC should accept whatever he gives them. “Time is running out for the MDC. They should either accept what [Mugabe’s] ZANU (PF), as the ruling party, has given them or remain out of government as they have said they will. There is no way we can hand any security ministry to them and they should not expect this to change,” says Mugabe’s spokesman, Patrick Chinamasa, who, like Mugabe, lost the elections in March.
The dispute over cabinet posts may seem academic, but in fact it is rooted in the opposition’s security concerns. The MDC maintains that it will not take part in the new government unless it gains control of the Home Affairs Ministry, which is in charge of the police. Previously, the ministry was used by Mugabe to terrorize opposition and civic leaders. If the Home Affairs ministry is shared, this will mean that Mugabe is still in full control of the security forces, as he is already in charge of the army, the prison services and the dreaded state secret agency, the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO). The MDC also fears that if it does not get a security ministry, Mugabe will still be able to unleash violence on the opposition in the run-up to the next elections.
Such concerns are well founded. While the political deadlock continues, there have been new allegations of political violence around Zimbabwe. The culprits, according to the MDC, are state security agents loyal to Mugabe, who are using violent attacks to punish the opposition for refusing to accept a weaker role in government. “People are being arrested on false allegations and cooked-up charges, while war veterans are also beating up our supporters, especially in rural Mashonaland. We knew that after we had refused the carrot, the stick would follow,” says the MDC’s Chamisa.
In the hopes of finding a solution to the growing humanitarian crisis, Zimbabwe’s warring parties are set to meet in South Africa this week. For the moment, however, there is little sign of relief for a country that is no stranger to suffering.